Gut health is becoming the latest wellness trend. Experts are telling us to focus on our digestive health and nutritionists are suggesting diets rich in fiber, fermented foods, probiotic and prebiotic ingredients.
Before jumping on the latest wellness trend, it’s important to understand our bodies and the importance of our gut to our overall health!
We’ve spoken to specialists in the field and asked them to tell us exactly what gut health is, why it matters, and what all of us can do to improve it.
Why is Gut Health Important?
It is with good reason that we use to phrase “gut feeling”. Intuitively, all of us know that our gut is connected to our emotional and mental well-being.
"We know the gut talks to the brain (hello butterflies in the belly) and the brain talks to the gut (ever feel anxious or the feeling of being uncomfortable that causes a gut reaction)? When this channel isn't functioning properly, major health problems can begin throughout the entire body."
When we feel anxious, stressed, or uneasy, these states are reflected in our stomachs: overwhelming emotions cause nausea and sometimes even aggressive reactions, such as vomiting, diarrhea or constipation.
Science has supported that this goes both ways - not only can our anxieties cause problems with our gut, but problems with our gut can cause depression and stress. The happy hormone - serotonin - is created in the gut, and the levels of serotonin largely influence our mood, and our overall emotional and mental health. (Learn more in 3 Ways to Stop Anxiety With Yoga.)
"80% of our immune system and 90% of our mood calming serotonin [stems] from within our gut, it makes sense that much of our physical and emotional wellbeing is affected by the health of our gut. When our gut microbiota is out of balance, inflammation can occur within the body which has been shown to be associated with a wealth of health conditions."
This isn’t where the influence of the gut stops. Our digestive tract is home to microorganisms that form the so-called microbiome, a community of trillions of bacteria and yeast responsible for many functions in our bodies, digestion being only one of them.
"Most of our immune system cells are located in the gut, and our gut functions like a filter for almost all organisms that enter our bodies. If the gut is strong, the immune system is strong. If the gut is weak, the immune system is weak. We also know that a poor gut microbiome and a weak gut barrier is tied to inflammation in the body, which can eventually lead to autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases."
The more we learn about the gut, the more apparent its importance to our overall health is!
What Are Signs of an Unhealthy Gut?
The first step in solving a problem is identifying that there is a problem.
So the question is, how do you know there is something wrong with your gut?
Experts agree that the simplest, most apparent signs are digestive troubles, such as stomach aches, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea.
According to Naturopathic Medical Doctor, Dr. Donese Worden, there are more subtle signs to look out for as well:
"You don’t have to have a GI complaint to have an unhealthy gut. Fatigue, food allergies, thyroid disease, autoimmune conditions, body and joint pain, weight gain, skin problems, headaches, and mental illness (including depression and anxiety) are common signs."
She also stresses the importance of addressing the health of our gut when struggling with mental illness, such as depression and anxiety.
Williams furthered mentioned ADD and ADHD as signs that we should look closer at our gut. According to her, hormonal imbalances are also good indicators that our gut is unhealthy.
(Learn more in The Yogic Lifestyle's Mind-Body Health and Happiness Explained.)
What Can We do to Improve Gut Health?
A gut-healthy diet is the key to improving and maintaining gut health. We spoke to registered dieticians, Erin Lisemby Judge and Kara Landau, and Naturopathic Doctor, Drew Sinatra, and created a list of gut-healthy foods according to their insight and advice!
A gut-healthy diet includes:
- Whole grains
- Potatoes (cooked and then cooled)
Things to avoid:
- Processed foods
- Foods rich in sugar
- Taking too many nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Taking unnecessary antibiotics
- Antibacterial hand sanitizers
- Drinking unfiltered tap water
- Refined carbohydrates
Our gut is naturally full of bacteria, and the key to a diet that supports gut health is a diet which supports healthy gut bacteria. Positive gut bacteria loves fiber, and plants are a source of fiber which is why a plant-based diet is best for the gut - it strengthens the microbiome. (Learn more in 3 Reasons Why Yogis Love Plant-Based Diets.)
Negative gut bacteria feed on sugar, which is why it’s important to avoid highly processed and sugar-rich foods.
Lifestyle Factors that Influence Gut Health
While a gut-friendly diet is key, it’s not the only factor in the health of your gut. Judge warns us that high stress levels can be detrimental to beneficial bacteria. “It’s vital to manage your stress and reduce as much stress in your life as you can,” she says. “You can do this by setting boundaries, disconnecting from work in the evenings and on the weekend, seeing a therapist, and practicing meditation. Regular physical activity and sleep are also important for a healthy gut.”
Landau agrees, but adds that we have to minimize other potentially gut aggravating ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners and additives, and unnatural skin care or cleaning products that seep into the skin and can influence the gut. Dr. Sinatra sums up the influence of lifestyle on our gut well:
"Being aware of these factors, eating a healthy diet and taking other measures, like choosing a quality probiotic, getting more sleep, exercising, and practicing stress-relieving activities such as yoga or meditation, can really help keep your gut and the rest of your body in check."
What about Probiotics and Prebiotics?
Probiotics and prebiotics are buzzwords in every gut wellness discussion, but what exactly is the difference?
In short, probiotics are the bacteria and the yeast that constitute our microbiome and live in our gut. The microorganisms are essential for our health and have a role to play in our digestive system. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that feeds the probiotics and help maintain the positive bacteria and yeast.
As Williams puts it, probiotics are the good bacteria that helps us “build our army of good guys” in the gut. According to Williams, probiotics help us better digest, build better immunity, support dopamine and serotonin levels, lower inflammation and balance out hormone levels.
For those who want to understand the science, Dr. Donese Worden elaborates:
“In the gut, probiotics can help a leaky gut by assisting in the maintenance of normal mucosal (gut wall lining) function and also protecting the lining from injurious factors such as toxins, infections and allergens. One of the important effects of probiotics is to strengthen the epithelial tight junctions. These junctions must be tight so substances don’t leak in or leak out inappropriately. We want our nutrients to stay in and keep the bad things out.”
While probiotics are available as supplements as well, it’s important to include foods which are rich in probiotics into your diet.
Our experts put together a list of the best foods with probiotics and prebiotics:
Foods rich in probiotics are:
- Soybean-based miso
Prebiotics can be found in form of prebiotic fibers and resistant starches:
- Green banana flour
- Cooked grains
- Cooked potatoes
A Healthy Gut - A Happy Life!
As our experts have epxlained, caring for your gut is an essential part of your overall health and wellness.
We’ve only recently started thinking about the crucial role the gut plays in our mental, emotional and physical wellness and doing research on how gut health is connected to other issues in our body.
The moral of the story is:
A gut-friendly diet is:
- Rich in fibers (plants)
- Rich in probiotics
- Rich in prebiotics
- Low on sugars
- Low on processed foods
To help our gut stay healthy we need to:
- Keep physically active
- Lower stress levels
- Get enough rest
- Avoid overuse of NSAIDs and antibiotics
- Drink an abundance of water
In turn, the gut makes sure that we:
- Have a strong immune system
- Get quality sleep
- Have an abundance of serotonin and dopamine (the happy hormones)
- Have clearer and cleaner skin
- Maintain an optimal weight
- Don’t have inflammatory problems
- Don’t suffer from hormonal imbalances
- Reduce anxiety and depression